Without really talking about it, my family and I have built little screens around ourselves, culture blinkers, which allow us to move through the world uninterrupted by sudden unexpected horrors. My sister has formalised the process: this morning she sent me a link to a website, Does the Dog Die, “crowdsourced emotional spoilers for movies, TV, books and more”. What you do is you put in the name of the film, say, you’re thinking about watching, and click to see if it contains anything you want to avoid seeing. A long list will appear, of potential triggers.
For instance, if you give it The Last of Us, the zombie series unfolding on telly right now, you will discover episodes one to three feature someone being burned alive, children dying, needles and, to be honest, a hundred scenes designed specifically for wild and screamy discomfort. Including one where a kind user, answering the question, “Is someone sexually assaulted?” has given a time-stamp warning for the scene where, “an infected [person] kisses Tess in order to transmit the infection using tendrils which protrude from its mouth”. In this show there is no, however, “copaganda” (police being shown as heroes), and the dog does not die.
My sister started using this website in hospital, on one of these long, airless afternoons she’s getting used to now, half-reading books, half-playing Scrabble on her phone, as nurses and porters tap on the door and glide through her room with needles and tea. I watch everything with a grim kind of awe, even the two men scheduled to come twice a day to run the taps and the shower for five minutes – something to do with germs and the plumbing being new. And my sister gamely welcomes them, and I have another biscuit. I have made myself at home here. The wifi is good and the company fine, so I’m hotdesking in the green armchair, which can recline should I want to stay the night or, while typing, need to lean back and remember a tricky word.
It’s a great place to work, it turns out. The room has an out-of-place, out-of-time quality, the very thing so many Soho-ish members’ clubs are striving for, with the added incentive of hygienic, controlled panic. It makes you type faster. My sister started watching a film; she was after a generic romcom, with nice dresses and sun. She wanted something to watch, I think, that was smooth and silky, a distraction from the too-textured reality of her current situation, when you have to calculate whether it’s morning, night, Wednesday or winter by squinting through two windows, a building’s width apart.
And all was fine, until suddenly the man… his knee was sore. In older films it would be the coughing of blood into a handkerchief; today the signs of grief ahead are more subtle, but no less doom-filled. I typed the name of the film into the site: “Are there clowns?” No. “Does a baby cry?” No. “Is the fourth wall broken?” No. Are there fat jokes, is there gun violence, or blood, or a miscarriage? No. “Does it feature hospital scenes?” Yes. “Does it have a sad ending?” Yes.
I have what the neurologist calls a “persistent aura” in my right eye, which means I’ve got used to there being a little glittering shadow hovering wherever I look. It’s this aura I think about when I try to explain what it’s like when someone you love is horribly ill in hospital, but also awake, and cool, and seemingly really quite OK. All of us will merrily go about our separate days, collecting the children, nipping to the shops, doing our work, writing our devastatingly funny messages in our various pass-agg WhatsApp groups, but all the time she’ll be floating on the edge of our vision, this distracting, shimmering concern.
Like my migraine aura, you quickly learn to live with it, and your expectations of a day shift. In the evening you learn to ask for spoilers before committing to a film, or to flick quickly through a book before reading it, or to avoid the “darkly comedic” TV series because of a weird vibe you get from the trailer on your phone. The problem is, death and sickness is a really common plotpoint. It is useful: it raises the stakes, it provides drama, it propels the story forward and (as I’m discovering in real life) explodes characters in new and unexpected ways. Which is such a shame! Good art requires, I realise, bad feeling.
I wonder if it’s healthy, swerving the emotion that comes from other people’s stories, those synthetic feelings twice-removed. Maybe it’s useful sometimes to bathe in it a bit, cry madly at something pretend on screen. But one benefit of looking for spoilers, and editing our culture consumption to fit the delicate state we sometimes find ourselves in, is that it allows a small flake of control. You can decide which stories you want to read, or watch only films with happy endings – and this is something, this is not nothing, at a time when it feels like the story of your real life has suddenly switched genre halfway through.
Email Eva at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman
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